The deciduous forests of Kabini have been called many epithets – land of the leopard, elephant haven and so on. Kabini is all that and more. As the safari vehicles stream through the forest, the keen faces of tourists peer intently at the top canopy with hopes of spotting a rosette covered feline form reclining on a branch. On lucky days, someone does spot a leopard and everything else is forgotten for the rest of the day. But on regular days, when Leopard Luck is as elusive as the animal itself, your senses can be delightfully startled by some rarer and more mysterious denizens of the forest.
On one such day, our safari driver decided to stop at a waterhole after exhausting all his ‘hotspots’ and running out of time. The guide stood up on the seat and observed the ground for visible tracks to follow. Not giving up hope yet, I scanned the trees around, neck craned as high as it could, determined not to miss even a tuft of a leopard’s tail tantalising us through the foliage. Instead, my eyes caught a glimpse of a tuft of shocking red on a woodpecker head sticking out from a tree trunk. As the rest of its black body slid into view, the redhead was revealed to be the White-bellied Woodpecker, one of the largest woodpeckers in the sub-continent, found mostly in deciduous forests of the Western Ghats, central and east India.
Unlike its flamboyant and ubiquitous cousin, the Flameback, the White-bellied woodpecker is a hard bird to find or spot. It shares a similar cackling call, but is more discreet in calling out. Its black body hides well against dark trees lit in parts by dappled light if any. Not satisfied with this camouflage, it takes its usual precautions of sliding around the tree trunk, spiralling up and down, never staying at a spot for more than a few seconds, all the while intently focusing on the layers of bark on the tree, stripping pieces off, probing into tiny gaps, never letting a mite slip away. Watching woodpeckers at work has fascinated us for as long as we can remember, their incredible ability to drill through hard wood and bore holes in tree trunks with a simple beak speaks to us of the power of determination and resilience against the force of nature.
Since I first spotted it on that otherwise uneventful safari, the white-beliied woodpecker has made several more jack-in-the-box appearances for me, each time in Kabini. While the Flameback delights beginner birders with its conspicuous flight across farms, orchards and well-wooded parks even in suburbs, the White-bellied woodpecker demands a greater commitment from the birder who wishes to tick its name off their checklist. Found only in deep forests with mature trees, it is harder to track its habits or mark its favourite tree patches. But in Kabini, even non-birders stand a fair chance of spotting this low-profile bird, thanks to the popularity of the panther cohabiting its tree homes.